Between Human and Animal—Especially Monkeys and Asses

This book has so far featured rather few Roman women. We have glimpsed the image of the laughing prostitute (pp. 3, 80). And we have seen Augustus’ daughter, Julia, as the butt of her father’s good-humored banter about gray hair and baldness (pp. 132–33). According to Roman tradition, Julia was not merely on the receiving end of jokes. Alongside the anecdote about her hair plucking, Macrobius’ Saturnalia includes a number of memorable quips that she was said to have made herself, several engaging transgressively with the moral policy of her father’s regime.1 One of the favorites for modern scholars has been her calculating approach to adultery (flagitia, “disgraceful behavior,” as it is called here) and illegitimate births: “When those who knew of her disgraceful behavior were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body for any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, ‘I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.’”2

This idea that the emperor’s daughter exploited her legitimate pregnancies (when “the ship’s hold is full”) as an opportunity for sleeping around might be read as an outright attack on Augustus’ moral legislation. Or it might be seen as banter in the risqué style of some of the emperor’s own joking encounters (see p. 131). Either way, its apparently blithe self-confidence is dramatically undercut—for those who know the full story—by the fact that Julia ended up exiled for her adulteries and died a lonely death in the same year as her father.3

One thing that we almost entirely miss in Rome is the tradition of subversive female laughter—what we call giggling—that is a distinctive strand in modern Western culture and can be glimpsed as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer. Although in the first chapter of this book I semiseriously call Dio’s stifled outburst in the Colosseum “giggles,” for us that form of laughter, including its cultural and literary construction, is almost exclusively associated with women and “girls”; in its strongest form, it is, in Angela Carter’s words, “the innocent glee with which women humiliate men.”4 If there was any such well-established, female alternative gelastic tradition in Roman culture, there is little reflection of it in surviving literature.5 Unsurprisingly, perhaps, because despite its significance in women’s popular culture, until recently it was a form of laughter that tended to exist outside the dominant orthodoxy, hardly figuring in male literary or cultural traditions for centuries, except to be ridiculed itself (“giggling schoolgirls”). It is not—as Carter observed of Alison’s outburst at the expense of her cuckolded husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”—“a sound which is heard very often in literature.”6

For the most part, women’s laughter is carefully policed in the literary representations of the Roman world. It does not seem to represent, as a specifically gendered form, much of a threat to male egos or to male traditions of laughter and joking, or at least the rules and regulations, implicit or explicit, were intended to ensure that it did not. As on so many topics, the reflections of Ovid are notably smart here. For in the third book of the Art of Love—his mock instructional poem on how to catch (and keep) a partner—he parodies the norms of female laughter, in the process exposing some of the cultural fault lines in Roman gelastic conventions. He also introduces what will be the main theme of this chapter: the boundary between humans and animals, which laughter helps both to establish and to challenge. It will come as no surprise to readers familiar with the misogynistic structures of ancient thought that the laughter of women leads “naturally” on to the braying and roaring of the animal kingdom.

After two books of advice to young men—on where to hang out to make your catch (races and triumphal processions are hot spots), on being sure to remember her birthday, on playing a little hard to get, and so on—in the third book, the narrator turns to a different group of pupils. Love’s mock (and mocking) “schoolmaster” now proceeds to give instructions to the female of the species. A couple of hundred lines are devoted to the care of the body, the style of the hair, and disguising your less attractive features, but then Ovid changes gear slightly. A warning to women not to laugh if they have unattractive teeth (black, too big, or crooked) launches some more general lessons in laughter. “Who would believe it?” he asks. “Girls even learn how to laugh.”7

Well, believe it or not, he goes on to run through the main points on the syllabus of laughter. “Let the mouth,” he urges, “open only so far. And keep those lacunae on each side small.” Lacuna usually means “a gap” or “a hole”—but here, and only here in surviving Latin literature, it is presumably being used for what we would call a dimple.8 How a girl could ever control her dimples is, of course, hard to imagine. But there is more complicated advice to come: “They should make sure that the bottom of the lips covers the top of the teeth, and they should not strain their sides by laughing continually but make a nice little feminine sound.”

There is a good deal of characteristic Ovidian wit in this passage. Part of the joke rests on the idea that laughter could ever be the subject of instruction. “You’ll never believe this,” the artful teacher says. And of course we don’t—but we are given the lessons all the same. Some, like the dimple regime, are more or less impossible to carry out. Others are close to incomprehensible. Commentators and translators have struggled for generations to make practical sense of “Et summos dentes ima labella tegant.” “Make sure the bottom of the lips covers the top of the teeth” is certainly one possible way of rendering it; so too is “Make sure the lower lips cover the top teeth.” But what could either possibly mean? “As often” one commentator despairs, “. . . Ovid’s virtuoso technical display reads well, but is hard to pin down.”9 But is that not exactly Ovid’s point? It is laughable to suggest, he is hinting to his readership, that you could ever learn to control the physicality of laughter. You could never follow these spuriously technical instructions; that’s the joke.

Ovid concludes his advice with some warning examples of how a girl might get her laughter wrong, and this takes us almost directly to the animal kingdom. “There’s one kind of girl,” he writes, “who distorts her face with a frightful guffaw; there’s another who you’d think was crying, when she is actually creased with laughing. Then there’s one that makes a harsh noise without any charm—laughing like an ugly donkey brays as she goes round the rough millstone.”10 That comparison between woman and donkey is particularly marked in the original Latin: in a prominent play on words (“ridet / ut rudet”), the girl ridet (laughs) like the donkey rudet (brays).

That pun points us to one of the great paradoxes of laughter for Roman writers, as for later theorists. On the one hand, laughter could be seen as a defining property of the human species. Yet on the other hand, it was in laughing, in the noise produced and the facial and bodily contortions of the laugher, that human beings most closely resembled animals. The awkward point was, quite simply, that the very attribute that defined the human’s humanity simultaneously made him or her one of the beasts—a braying ass, for example. Or as Simon Critchley summed it up, writing of humor rather than laughter itself, “If humour is human, then it also, curiously, marks the limit of the human.”11

Roman writing often highlights that paradox. In Ovid’s literary lessons in laughter, it is underlined not only by the pun on ridet and rudet. When, a little earlier, the poet advises the girl that she should “let the mouth open only so far,” the word used for the gap between the lips opened up in laughter is rictus: “sint modici rictus.”12 That is a word with two principal referents: the open mouth of the human laugh and the gaping jaws of an animal. And when it refers to a laugh, it almost always suggests a contortion of the face bordering on the bestial. In Lucretius it is the grimace of death, in Suetonius the foaming mouth (spumante rictu) of the deformed emperor Claudius.13 But it is Ovid in the Metamorphoses who exploits the word most systematically and cleverly. We have already seen (pp. 136–37) how laughter marks the power relations between gods and humans in the poem. Rictus is often a marker of the change of status between human and animal, which is one of the poem’s main motifs. When Io, for example, is turned into a heifer, one of the signs of the transformation is that she now has a rictus rather than a mouth, and the rictus contracts (contrahitur rictus) when she changes back into a human.14

Catullus exploits a similar idea when in poem 42 (“Adeste hendecasyllabi”) he focuses on the laughter of a woman who has some drafts of his poetry and refuses to give them back. Addressed to the poet’s verses themselves, it is a complicated poem cast in deceptively simple terms that draw on the traditions of invective, of popular Roman rough justice, and, as has more recently been argued, of Roman comedy.15 It also has a lot say about laughter as such. The girl who has her hands on the writing tablets (a “foul tart,” putida moecha) thinks Catullus himself a “joke” (iocum), but he turns the tables on her by attacking the laughter as well as the laugher. She laughs, he writes, moleste ac mimice: that is, “annoyingly” and, in one literal sense, “in the style of a mime actress”—a word that, as we shall see (p. 171), is more complicated than this translation implies and goes right to the heart of one important aspect of Roman laughter culture. But more than that, she laughs “with the face of a Gallic hound,” catuli ore Gallicani. Part of the joke must rest on the obvious pun (catuli/Catulli), but the image in general serves to undermine the humanity of the human laugher: the open mouth, distorted face, and no doubt bared teeth turn the woman into a beast.16

In the rest of this chapter I shall explore how laughter impacts on that boundary between humans and animals—highlighting other aspects of the figure of the parasite, now appearing in animal guise, and thinking harder about the roles of both mime and imitation (failed as much as successful) as key prompts to Roman laughter. I will start with “monkeys,” or “apes” (shamelessly lumping all primates together interchangeably under those two popular headings17), and will highlight one of the notable ancient theories about laughter that these animals prompted. And I shall end with donkeys, or asses—encountering en route some famous agelasts of the Roman world, those notorious characters who were said never, or only very rarely, to have laughed. One important text will be Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or, as it is often now known, The Golden Ass. For not only does this novel explicitly focus on the boundary between man and donkey (the hero Lucius being accidentally transformed into an ass and finally, thanks to the goddess Isis, back into human form again), but one major episode in its plot is a (spoof) festival of the god Laughter (Risus).

These themes will open up another set of ideological entanglements. In the previous chapter I pointed to the connections between laughter, different forms of political and civic hierarchy, and the convivium, or banquet. Here the entanglement is, I should warn you, even more entangled: between laughter and mimicry, mime and the contested frontier that separates the human and animal species. That is part of the point. I want to explore the unexpected cultural connections that are exposed if you follow laughter’s thread. I shall also return to that Janus-faced aspect of Roman laughter: the close links in ancient Rome between those people who make you laugh and those you laugh at.


Monkeys and apes were supposed to make Romans crack up—in a tradition of laughter that stretched back, or so they imagined, to early Greece.18 One of the guests at the dinner party staged in Athenaeus’ The Philosophers’ Banquet refers to a story about the (semilegendary) sixth-century BCE Syrian sage Anacharsis on just this theme. Anacharsis was once at a party where jesters were brought in, and he remained solemnly unlaughing (agelastos). But when a monkey was brought in, then he started to laugh.19 Why were monkeys so funny? And can the laughter that erupted around them help us understand some of the other chuckles and chortles that were said to resound around other parts of Roman culture?

Primates are good to think with. Modern science since Charles Darwin has famously debated the question of whether primates laugh, and if so, whether the physical response we might (or might not) call their “laughter” is significantly different from our own.20That was not, so far as we know, a concern of Greek and Roman writers, who did not use the behavior of apes to challenge the idea that only humans (plus or minus the occasional heron; see pp. 33–34) laughed. They negotiated the boundary between apes and humans in other ways, concerned not only with the similarities between primates and humans but more particularly with the imitative properties of the primates. Were they very like human beings? Or were they just pretending to be so? And what was the difference? These are questions that have intrigued recent generations too. In fact, some readers of this book (like its author) will be old enough to remember when the highlight of a visit to a zoo was the chimpanzees’ tea party, in which chimps dressed up in silly human clothes sat at a table and were made to consume a human-style tea. It was a powerful prompt to reflect on what divides us from the simians.21

In classical Greece, monkeys—pithēkoi—were associated with, among other things, various forms of inauthenticity and imitation. In the first half of the fifth century BCE, Pindar used the image of the monkey to evoke deceptively persuasive speech (children, he wrote, think that apes are pretty or lovely [kalos], but Rhadamanthys, the judge of the underworld, is not taken in by the slander or deception associated with such creatures22). In later comedy and Athenian courtroom speeches, pretense—claiming, for example, rights of citizenship that you did not have—was regularly attacked as the behavior of a monkey.23 Aristophanes, in fact, exploited for comic effect the ape’s awkward place on the boundary between fraud and flattery: one of his clever coinages, the word pithēkismos(monkeying around or monkey business), captures the ideas of both mimicry or pretense and fawning or toadying.24 And he was not the only writer to do so. In a short surviving fragment of another fifth-century BCE comic dramatist, Phrynichus, four men are each compared to a monkey: one a coward, one a flatterer, and one an illegitimate, so spurious, citizen, or an imposter (the last comparison is sadly lost).25

Writers of the Roman world inherited and developed all these themes. But the closeness between the Latin words simia (monkey) and similis (like or similar)—and the tempting, though incorrect, idea that one derived from the other—gave an added edge to many Roman explorations of the mimetic properties of the monkey.26 Puns on the two words go back at least as far as the poet Ennius, whose tag “simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis”—or “the simian, how similar that ugly creature is to us”—is quoted by Cicero.27 And in many different contexts, apes and monkeys became bywords for mimicry.

The Roman comic theater found in the figure of the monkey a powerful symbol of its own mimetic tricks. Plautus in particular packed his plays with monkey names (Simia, Pithecium, and so on), monkey dreams, even monkey bites,28 and this simian conceit was visualized in a curious statuette, almost certainly of Roman date, that depicts a comic actor with an ape’s head in place of a theatrical mask (see fig. 3).29 Horace too, with Ennius surely somewhere at the back of his mind, could refer to a secondhand, imitative poet as “a monkey.”30 And Aelian’s confidence—in the late second or early third century CE—that mimicry was the defining property of this particular animal fits well with the Roman cultural landscape. “The monkey is the most imitative creature,” as he explained, “and every bodily action that you teach it, it will learn exactly, so as to be able to show it off. Certainly, it will dance if it has learned how and will play the pipes if you teach it.” He later observed that the animal’s habits of imitation could be the death of it (or at least lead to its capture). Monkey hunters in India would put their shoes on in sight of their prey, then leave out some more pairs for the animals to copy their actions—the trick was that the monkeys’ shoes were attached to snares.31

Various images discovered at Pompeii turn on the monkey’s notorious mimicry of human beings.32 One statuette depicted some kind of ape dressed in a Phrygian cap and clutching a dagger.33 A curious painting from one of the grandest houses in the town shows a boy with a monkey that is dressed in a tunic and (presumably) all ready to show off its imitative skills (see fig. 4).34 But most striking of all is a painted frieze that caricatures the founding heroes of Rome. It includes an image of Romulus and (in a much better state of preservation) one of the escape of Aeneas, with his father and son, from Troy. All these human characters are represented as strange crossbred apes, with outsize penises, tails, and dog heads (see fig. 5).35 There has been considerable debate on what the exact joke was here. Some have seen a learned visual pun (the nearby island of Pithecusae [Monkey Island] was also known as Aenaria, which many Romans thought meant “Aeneas island”—so the picture conflates the two).36 Others have detected “comic resistance” to the Romanization of Pompeii and to the Augustan exploitation of the legends of early Rome.37 But whatever precise reading we give to these images, they point at least to the comic interchangeability of monkeys and mythical heroes; monkeys could even play the role of Rome’s founding fathers—for a laugh.

But what exactly was it that made apes such a prompt to laughter? We would be deceiving ourselves if we thought we could explain why any particular Roman cracked up when they caught sight of a monkey (let alone of an Aeneas in ape form). But a series of anecdotes and moralizing discussions in Roman literature takes us closer to understanding the shifting relationships between “monkey business” and laughter. These stories point to the importance of mimicry and flattery and also to the edgy intersection between the human and the animal.

At one level, as Aristophanes’ coinage implies, the monkey could be seen as the bestial equivalent of the human parasite—the freeloading guest who traded flattery and laughter for a meal. This is exactly what Plutarch suggests in his essay How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend. “Do you see the monkey?” he asks at one point. “He can’t guard your house, like a dog can; he can’t carry loads like a horse; he can’t plough the land like oxen. So he endures abuse and buffoonery and puts up with practical jokes, offering himself as an instrument of laughter. That’s just like the flatterer.”38The monkey, in other words, is nature’s version of human culture’s “flatterer-cum-clown.” That is what Phaedrus hints too when he makes one of his fables turn on an encounter between a tyrant and a flatterer, and from the animal kingdom chooses a lion to stand for the tyrant and an ape for the flatterer.39 It is also a point that the story of Anacharsis underlines. For when he was asked to explain why the monkey had made him laugh when the jesters had not, the sage replied that a monkey was laughable (geloios) “by nature but a man only by practice.”40

Another major factor must be the imitative side of the monkey. We have already seen (p. 119) how Roman orators could be almost guaranteed to raise a laugh—vulgar as it might be—by mimicking their opponents in voice and stance, and we shall shortly look at aggressively imitative forms of comic performance staged purely for laughs. Part of the hilarity that apes and monkeys prompted certainly went back to their mimicry of human beings. But one or two anecdotes hint at something a little more complicated than mimicry pure and simple. They suggest that what was particularly laughable about these primates was their position on the very boundary between human and animal—and the precariousness of their attempts to imitate human beings. To put it another way, some of the loudest laughter accompanied their failed attempts at imitation, which exposed the mimicry for what it was.

These ideas underlie a story told by Lucian, the second-century CE satirist and essayist. It features an Egyptian king who had taught a troupe of monkeys to do a Pyrrhic dance, which they did very expertly, dressed up in masks and purple robes—until, Lucian writes, one of the spectators threw some nuts into the show. At that moment, monkeys became monkeys again, forgot the dance, threw off their fancy dress, and fought for the nuts. And the spectators laughed.41

Lucian is using this story to make a particular point in the course of a gleefully satiric philosophical debate. The monkeys are like those hypocrites who purport to despise wealth and advocate the sharing of property . . . until one of their friends is in trouble and needs some cash, or there’s some gold and silver on offer. Then they reveal their true nature. But Lucian offers insights too into the working of laughter. Who caused the laughter, and how? There turn out to be two different prompts here. On the one hand, there is the man who threw in the nuts (explicitly described by Lucian asasteios—the Greek equivalent of the Latin urbanus, “cleverly witty”). On the other hand, there are the monkeys themselves. In their case, it is their inability to sustain their human role—their recrossing of the boundary between ape and man—that provokes the hilarity.

A different nuance—pointing to different pressure points along the fuzzy dividing lines between ape and man—is found in an anecdote in Strabo’s Geography, in his discussion of North Africa. For a brief moment, a laugh interrupts the sober, scientific narrative. Writing in the early first century CE, Strabo is drawing on an account by the Stoic philosopher and intellectual Posidonius, who lived about a hundred years earlier. As he sailed along the African coastline, Posidonius caught sight of a colony of wild monkeys in a forest, some living in the trees, some on the ground, some nursing their young, and some that made him laugh: these were the ones with heavy udders, the bald ones, and those with obvious disfigurements.42 These monkeys were not, of course, actively imitating anyone; they were just being monkeys. In that way, the story serves to remind us that “imitation” rests as much in the observer’s perception of similarity as in any intentional mimicry. The joke here is that Posidonius laughs at those features that he would have laughed at if the animals had been human beings (we have already seen baldness as a surefire prompt to laughter in the Roman world; pp. 51, 132–33, 146). It is a further suggestion that some of the laughter about ancient monkeys stems from the ambiguity of their position on the boundary between the human and animal kingdoms—or at least our perception of it (in other words, the joke’s probably also on Posidonius, and us).

All these anecdotes offer telling hints about the connections between primates and human laughter, but only hints, not attempts to face head on the basic question of why people laughed at monkeys. There was, however, one writer of the Roman Empire—the physician Galen—who did face that question directly, in an extraordinary few paragraphs of reflection in which he not only tried to explain what is funny about the ape but also came close to using the ape’s example to reflect back onto human practice and to explain why human clowns (or comic artists) make us laugh. Buried in a long medical treatise, On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body, this brave ancient discussion of laughter has not received the attention it deserves.

I gave a brief preview of Galen’s reflections in chapter 2, summarizing his idea that monkeys and apes operate, as we would put it, as “caricatures” of the human being. “We laugh particularly,” he wrote, “at those imitations that preserve an accurate likeness in most of their parts but are completely wrong in the most important ones.” And he refers to the example of the ape’s “hands,” which are similar to human hands—but for the thumbs, which are not opposed to the fingers and so are not only useless but “utterly laughable” (pantē geloios). But this is only one part of a longer discussion that raises further issues about how visual joking works.

Two passages in this treatise are particularly important. The first, which includes the discussion of the ape’s “hands,” has more to say both about the animal’s capacity for imitation and about the practice of human artists who try to raise a laugh. For Galen—in a way that echoes the story about the monkeys and the nuts—the basic point about the primates is that they are bad imitators rather than good ones. Pindar’s famous quotation about children finding monkeys “beautiful” reminds us, he explains, that “this creature is a laughable [geloion] toy for children at play, for it tries to mimic all human actions but fails in these laughably [epi to geloion]. Have you not seen an ape trying to play the pipes and dance and write and everything else a human being does correctly? What ever did you think? Did you think he handled it all just like us, or laughably [geloiōs]? . . . As for its whole body, my argument as it goes on will show that it is a laughable [geloion] imitation of a human being.”43 He continues by suggesting that there is an analogue here for the procedures of the comic artist: “If a painter or a sculptor, when he was depicting [mimoumenos] the hands of a human, was going to make an intentional error for a laugh [epi to geloion], he would make exactly the kind of error that we see in apes.” Later in the treatise, Galen returns to the apes in summing up his overriding principle that the character of the parts of the body matches the character of the soul:

For the ape, as has already been stated, being an animal laughable [geloios] in its soul and an inferior [pros to cheiron] imitator,44 nature has clad in a body to correspond. In fact, the whole framework of the bones in its legs is put together in such a way that it cannot stand up nice and erect, and it has muscles in the back of its legs that are utterly laughable [geloiotatous] and incompatible with its structure. It is for this reason that it cannot stand safely and perfectly erect. But just like a human being stands and walks and runs with a limp when he is raising a laugh [gelōtopoiōn] and mocking [skōptōn] another of the species who is lame, that’s just how an ape uses its legs.45

There are all kinds of problems with this discussion, enterprising as it is. Galen moves rather too effortlessly among different versions of imitation: from the simplest sense of “likeness” through active “imitation” to an artist’s “caricature.” But he makes a radical (in ancient terms) attempt to explain why the ape’s mimetic properties make it so laughable. In Galen’s view, while the creature may ape the human (to pick up for a moment on our own language of monkey mimetics) and seem very like the human in particular respects, it never fully crosses the boundary that divides it from our species, and that’s what makes us laugh.

It is, however, all the more significant a discussion because Galen draws a parallel between the laughter caused by monkeys and apes and that caused by various human “laughter makers.” This is one of a tiny number of ancient attempts explicitly to reflect on how some visual images can make people laugh.46 In the last passage I quoted, Galen links the naturally awkward movements of the monkey with the mimetic, histrionic movements of the man who raises a laugh by mocking the lame—as if, to reverse the question, the laughable nature of the ape could help to explain why we laugh at the human mimic or clown. To push this a little further than Galen does, he comes close to seeing not just the monkey as a jester but the jester as a monkey. This is, in a way, another variant on the idea that the monkey is laughable “by nature but a man only by practice.”

These monkey themes set the scene for the rest of this chapter, which looks next at human mimes and mimics and closes with Apuleius’ version of crossing species boundaries. In between, I return to the example of Anacharsis, who spent most of the partyagelastos (unlaughing), and to the question of what could get a nonlaugher to laugh—which involves similar issues of mimicry and the dividing line between animals and humans.


Monkeys stood better than any other creature for the connection between mimicry and laughter. But they were not the only mimics in the Roman world to signal laughter. Hovering over the Roman orator as he was tempted to raise a laugh with a wicked impersonation of his opponent was the specter of the Roman mime and its actors. There was at Rome an ambivalent relationship between the practice of oratory and the practice of the stage in general: orators could, and did, learn tricks of the trade from skilled actors, but nonetheless actors were definitely at the other end of the social, political, and cultural hierarchy from Cicero and his like; according to the axioms of Roman power, which partly correlated status with the ownership of one’s own words, an actor was condemned to be only a mouthpiece of the scripts of others.47 There was no such ambivalence about mime. The mime actor (mimus), like the scurra, was a dreadful antitype of the elite orator. Mime was the one ancient theatrical genre most firmly associated with laughter, but to suggest that in raising a laugh a Roman orator was playing his part in a Roman mime amounted to an insinuation that he was quite beyond the pale. So why were mimes so laughable—and so unacceptable? What was their role in the “laughterhood” of Rome?

Mime is a contested genre in modern scholarship. We know much less about Roman mimes than we would like to. We tend to speculate with misplaced confidence on what we don’t know—while sometimes overlooking some of the obvious things we do. There is general agreement that whatever its debt to an earlier Greek tradition, mime was a particularly important medium in Rome, influencing all kinds of literary production, from Horace through Latin love elegy to Petronius (“the missing link in Roman literary history,” as Elaine Fantham once dubbed it).48 There is agreement too that mime was one of the few ancient theatrical genres that featured women as performers, and both male and female actors had speaking parts—this was not mime in our (silent) sense of the term.49 After that, things become murkier.

It is sometimes assumed that there was a fairly clear distinction between mime and “pantomime”—a performance (again quite unlike the modern genre of the same name) normally consisting of silent dancers accompanied by singers. But in practice, ancient writers blurred the distinction; like the learned diners in Macrobius’ Saturnalia, they slipped easily between talk of mime and talk of pantomime (see pp. 78–79).50 It is also commonly said that, in sharp contrast to performers in other major theatrical genres of antiquity, mime actors performed without masks. That may be so, but it is a claim that rests largely on one passage of Cicero’s On the Orator—where the character of Strabo asks, “What could be more ridiculus than a sannio? But he produces laughter [ridetur, “is laughed at”] with his face, his expression, his voice, in fact with his whole body. I can say that this is funny [salsum] yet not in a way that I would want an orator to be, but like a mime actor.”51

The modern interpretation rests on the idea that if the face is a prompt to laughter, the character concerned cannot have been wearing a mask (for that would have hidden the face). But this passage does not say that. It refers to the face and expression of some kind of clown (sannio) and compares his general style of laughter production with that of a mime actor.52 In any case, a funny expression might actually be the expression of a mask—especially as we have a strong hint in Tertullian of a tradition of masked mime (“The image of your god covers his foul and notorious head,” he writes of what seems very likely to be a mime actor).53 Perhaps we are seeking uniformity where none is to be found.

For the rest, there is a wide range of conflicting and incompatible testimony on the nature of Roman mime, onto which it is hard to impose much convincing order. Roman writers sometimes strongly associate mimes with low life, suggesting that performances took place in front of common crowds on the street, but other times they refer to mimes put on in the residences of the elite and in front of some very upmarket fans of the genre.54 They sometimes imply that mimes were improvised, off-the-cuff performances, though our knowledge of mime comes mostly from what survives of crafted literary versions, including those written by the well-to-do (so it is said) Laberius, who was notoriously asked by Julius Caesar to act in one of his own mimes (insult or flattery?).55Sometimes our sources suggest that the plots were drawn from everyday life and were by and large bawdy to boot; that is certainly what the genteel characters of the Saturnalia assumed (see p. 78), and plenty of the surviving fragments on papyrus focus on adultery stories, farts, and the “lower bodily stratum” in its limited varieties.56 But other mime plots were clearly mythological, even if they ended up as lusty parodies rather than straight renderings (such as Laberius’ Anna Peranna or the versions of Virgil’s Ecloguesperformed by wellknown mime stars).57

It is not hard to see why some scholars have rather desperately resorted to constructing a chronological development (whether a shift in the character and audience of the mimes from popular to elite culture, or alternatively an ever-increasing scale of bawdiness—“lewder as time went on,” as one critic recently put it58). Nor is it hard to see why others have suggested that mime was something of a catchall category that embraced “any kind of theatrical spectacle that did not belong to masked tragic and comic drama.”59The idea that the ancient mime could be as loose a term as the modern farce is an attractive one, and it conveniently accommodates the otherwise awkwardly conflicting evidence. But even so, it tends to sidestep (or not take seriously enough) those two things that we know for sure about mime: its whole point was to make people laugh, and it was a strikingly imitative genre.

There can be no doubt that mime and laughter went together, and for that reason alone, mime deserves its share of the limelight in this book. Where we have met it in earlier chapters, it has always been as a laughter raiser (for better or worse, vulgar or not). This connection can be documented time and again. It is emphasized, for example, in some of the memorial verses composed to commemorate notable actors or authors in the genre. Philistion, an early imperial mime writer, is written up in a verse that proclaims how “he made the mournful lives of men to mix with laughter.” A similar message is conveyed in the memorial to the mime actor Vitalis, who is said to have “unleashed laughter in sad hearts.”60 And as late as the sixth century CE, the Sophist Choricius of Gaza defends the power of mimes against Christian critics of the genre by praising their restorative and laughter-provoking power and—interestingly, taking another view of laughter’s role on the species boundary—argues that laughter was in fact a property shared by humans and the gods.61

Why, then, was mime so powerful a producer of laughter? Again, the reason that any individual laughed at any individual performance is lost to us; answers might range from some carnivalesque pleasure in bums and farts to the simple fact that everyone else in the audience was splitting their sides. But in the discussions of mimes in our elite authors, the key factor links laughter and—as the very name suggests—the imitative nature of the genre. This went far beyond the more general (and philosophically controversial) questions of mimesis that underlay all theatrical representation; the hilarity of the mime was linked to its specific practices of mimicry.62

It remains debatable how far ancient actors in the major theatrical genres of tragedy and comedy “acted” in our terms. There are some hints that, as time went on, various forms of impersonation gradually became more important in mainstream ancient drama, with greater stress on, for example, realistic characterization of language and accent—even from behind a stylized mask.63 All the same, imitation of this kind was never taken to be a defining feature of the tragic or comic theater as it was of the various performance traditions that go under the heading of mime. Cicero and Quintilian both point to the aggressive mimicry of this genre. The anecdote about the (panto)mimes in Macrobius also centers on the realistic imitation of the mad Hercules, although the audience misread it (see p. 79).64 And those ancient scholars who attempted to define the essence of mime (for modern scholars are not the first to try to impose order on the tricky complexities of classical culture) repeatedly emphasized its imitative qualities. For example, Diomedes, a fourth-century grammarian, writes of its “imitation of different forms of speech,” its “bawdy imitation of lewd words and deeds,” and how it was named for its mimetic properties (“as if it were the only genre that used imitation, although other forms of literature [poemata] do likewise, but it alone, as if by some particular prerogative, claimed rights over what was common property”); along similar lines and at roughly the same date, Evanthius refers to mime’s “everyday imitation of common things and trivial people.”65

We cannot write this off merely as a grammarians’ solution, resorting to etymology (“mimes are mimetic”) as a convenient means of explanation. For Cicero, Quintilian, and Macrobius insist that the mime actors’ mimicry was instrumental in the production of laughter. The audience laughed at the imitation and pretense of these actors, which was not far from saying—by easy shorthand and slippage—that the audience laughed at the actors themselves (if they didn’t, the mime would fail). It was this aspect, as much as the whiff of low life, that determined the orator’s fear of being mistaken for a mimus. That would mean he had failed the challenge confronting the elite public speaker: how to provoke laughter (as a ridiculus) without simultaneously becoming its butt (ridiculus in the other sense).

This is a simple set of connections between laughter and mimicry and mime but one that can enrich our understanding of some famous passages of Roman literature. I have already highlighted (p. 159) one particular line in Catullus’ poem on the verses he wants given back: the tart who is hanging onto his poetry tablets laughs, he writes, mimice ac moleste. I glossed this provisionally as “in the style of a mime actress,” and that is generally the sense that most translators of the poem now give. For Guy Lee, this was the “odious actressy laugh” of the whore; for John Godwin, the woman was “laughing like an actress”; for Peter Whigham, she was “like a stage tart.” Commentators too take broadly this line, with Kenneth Quinn reducing the image to that of a pouting ancient equivalent of a modern cinema starlet.66 Some of this may underlie Catullus’ invective; it seems likely that there was laughter on (as we would say) both sides of the curtain at a mime, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that mime actors and actresses had a distinctive, perhaps lewd, laugh—though hardly, I think, a starlet’s pout. But Catullus’ gibe is edgier than that. Almost impossible as it is to translate, it parades the idea of vulgar, bodily, laughable imitation on the part of the thieving whore. It may also point to the fact that if the girl is to be seen in a mimic guise, then—as much as she is cackling “like a stage tart”—we too are laughing at her. And that, of course, is exactly what the poem itself is doing.

Some of these issues also underlie the so-called Quartilla episode, near the beginning of what survives of Petronius’ first-century CE novel, Satyricon. Modern critics have intensely discussed this story—partly because there are so many gaps in the text we have that it is an intriguing challenge to explain exactly what happens and in what order.67 But it is clear enough that, as the surviving story opens in the standard version, the narrator and the antiheroes of the novel receive a visit in their lodgings from an attendant of Quartilla, a priestess of the phallic god Priapus. She announces the imminent arrival of her mistress—who is coming to call on the men in response to their earlier disruption of Priapus’ holy rites. When the priestess arrives shortly after, she sheds a stream of histrionic tears about the sacrilege committed, then embarks on a full-on orgy—many of whose details are (maybe happily) lost in the lacunae of the text as it has come down to us.

As most critics have observed, laughter is a recurring element in this episode (and Maria Plaza has rightly pointed to many of the tricky interpretative difficulties it raises in the narration—in terms of who is laughing at whom and whose laughter we treat as authoritative68). But there is, for my concerns in this chapter, a particularly relevant outburst immediately before the scripted orgy starts. Just as Quartilla moves from her crocodile tears to the preparations for the sexual party, the women laugh in a terrifying way—and then everything resounds mimico risu.69 The same issues of translation come up again. We find, in various modern versions, “stagy laughter,” “farcical laughter,” “rire théâtral,” and the “laughter of the low stage.”70 But once again, that is only part of the point. As Costas Panayotakis and others have clearly shown, this section of the Satyricon is constructed around the themes and conventions of mime—and mimetic plots.71 This might indeed suggest that Quartilla and her attendant laugh in a “stagy” way, with all the ideas of pretense that might entail, or that they laugh with the bawdy vulgarity of mime actors.

Yet the explicit phrase mimico risu encourages us to focus more directly on the connections and associations of mime and on the wider “economy” of laughter in these performances—as it involves both actors and audience. It is an economy that Petronius here both exploits and inverts. Quartilla’s mime show ought to have raised some hearty chuckles from its audience, for that is the nature and purpose of mime. In fact, the reaction of the audience in the text—by which I mean the narrator and his friends—is dazed astonishment. Partly the butts of the joke, partly nonlaughing spectators, they can only exchange glances. They do not laugh at all. In a way, this is a subversion of the genre. Petronius is not simply drawing on mime but also upsetting its very conventions, destabilizing the assumed relationship between actors and audience and hinting at further questions about who exactly is laughing at whom.72


There were even wider—and sometime dangerous—implications in Roman connections between different forms of imitation and laughter. One of these is starkly illustrated in an anecdote preserved in Festus’ second-century CE dictionary, On the Meaning of Words.73 Under the entry forPictor (painter), we read of the death of the famous fifth-century BCE artist Zeuxis: “The painter Zeuxis died from laughing when he was laughing immoderately at a picture of an old woman that he himself had painted. Why the story was related at this point by Verrius when his purpose was to write about the meaning of words, I really do not understand—and when he also quoted some not particularly clever anonymous lines of poetry about the same thing: ‘What limit is he going to set on his laughter, then, / Unless he wants to end up like that painter who died laughing?’”74 This story was to have a notable afterlife in a self-portrait by Rembrandt, painted in his old age. It shows the artist laughing, and in the background is an apparently ugly figure. The significance of this scene has often puzzled critics. Is this, for example, Rembrandt as Democritus? Almost certainly it is not. For the secondary figure in the background seems clearly female, and if so, this must surely be Rembrandt as Zeuxis—facing his end, with a specifically painterly reference (see fig. 6).75

I am not concerned here with the truth of the story (it is first attested centuries after the death of Zeuxis, and even assuming that the reference in Festus to the Augustan writer Verrius Flaccus is correct, we have no idea what his source might have been). Nor am I concerned with the physiological possibility of death through laughter—a well-known urban legend in both ancient and modern culture. My question is simply why would we imagine that Zeuxis would find a painting of an elderly lady so laughable? And so very laughable that it killed him?

We might think in terms of mainstream ancient misogyny (and of the despised cultural category of the crone). What else are old women fit for, except to be laughed at? What would an artist do who had made an image of a crone, except laugh at it? Are old women deadly, even in the laughter they provoke? Misogyny of this sort may well be part of it, but there is more to this story of laughter than that.76

Whatever Zeuxis’ paintings really looked like (they are all lost), later descriptions and discussions, largely of Roman date, focused on their imitative quality. This is most clearly seen in the famous, and much analyzed, story of the mimetic competition between Zeuxis and his rival Parrhasius recounted by Pliny the Elder: Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so lifelike that it deceived the birds (who came to peck at them), but it did not secure his victory, because Parrhasius created an image that deceived even Zeuxis (he painted a curtain, which Zeuxis tried to pull back).77 The anecdote in Festus about the painting of the old woman is another—so far unrecognized—story on the same theme, suggesting an even more challenging aspect of Zeuxis’ mimetic prowess and another aspect of the laughable properties of Roman imitation. Here it is surely Zeuxis’ own imitation that he finds so hilarious—and it kills him. It is hard not to imagine that Rembrandt knew exactly what he was doing when he re-created himself in the guise of Zeuxis.

This story of Zeuxis leads us in various directions. It points us, obviously, to other ancient examples of those killed by their own laughter. But it also gestures in a different direction, toward the nonlaughers, the agelasts, in the classical world—for one memorable anecdote provides a link between a group of unfortunate victims of their own laughter and a notorious Roman who had supposedly never laughed in his whole life. This offers us a glimpse of a scene so funny in ancient terms that it could either produce laughter powerful enough to kill or produce a chuckle in a man whose trademark was that he never cracked up. It is a memorable scene that will also bring us back, in the final section of this chapter, to the borderline between human and animal—but this time with asses and donkeys as the focus of attention.

The history and culture of laughter are necessarily bound up with those who do not laugh. The story of laughter should not leave out those who do not get the joke. Yet agelasts rarely get much cultural attention (and indeed are peculiarly difficult to study), except at the moment when they too break down and something finally elicits laughter from them. One of the most powerful motifs in the European fairy tale is the “princess who would not laugh” and the (usually) erotic origins and consequences of her first hilarious outburst.78 And the famous classical Greek story of how the goddess Demeter, grieving for the loss of Persephone, was induced to laugh when Baubo lifted her skirts and exposed her genitals has been as intensely discussed by modern feminist literary critics as by classicists.79 In addition to Athenaeus’ brief account of the sage Anacharsis, who cracked up only at the sight of a monkey, there is a wide range of stories from the Roman period (even if often focusing on characters from the Greek past) that concern much more determined, long-term, or sometimes involuntary agelasts and explain what finally got them chortling and with what consequences.

One of these offers a different perspective on the links between laughter and imitation.80 This tale is again from Athenaeus but drawn (and maybe adapted) from a multivolume history of Delos by one Semus—now lost apart from some short quotations and dated, only by guesswork, any time between the third century BCE and the mid- or late second century CE.81 It concerns a man called Parmeniscus of Metapontum, who had been to consult the oracle of Trophonius in Boeotia. One feature of this particular oracle was that people temporarily lost their ability to laugh after the consultation,82 but unusually, the loss seemed to be permanent in Parmeniscus’ case—forcing him to seek the advice of the Delphic oracle. The Pythia gave an apparently encouraging response: “You ask me about laughter soothing [meilichoiou], unsoothed one [ameiliche]; mother at home will give it to you—honor her greatly.”83 But going home to his mother did not restore Parmeniscus’ laughter as he had hoped. Later—and still unable to laugh—he happened to be in Delos and visited the temple of Leto, Apollo’s mother, “thinking that her statue would be something remarkable to look at. But when he saw that it was just a shapeless piece of wood, he unexpectedly laughed. And seeing the meaning of the god’s oracle and freed from his affliction, he honored the goddess greatly.”

We have very little idea of what elements of historical truth, if any, are embedded in this suspiciously classic tale of the oracle’s riddling opacity and the consultant’s misinterpretation (Parmeniscus failed to spot that it was Apollo’s mother who was meant).84 We do not know if Parmeniscus was a bona fide historical character or at what date the events were supposed to have taken place.85 But strictly factual or not, the story offers some important reflections on ancient laughter and on ancient religious ideology—as Julia Kindt has recently argued in a detailed analysis of Parmeniscus’ adventures.86

For Kindt, the point of the story turns on the understanding of religious images, on different modes of religious viewing, and on the relationship between anthropomorphic statues of the gods and alternative forms of divine images, such as Leto’s statue—aniconic, less naturalistic versions capturing the essence of the deity in a plank of wood or a barely worked stone. It is certainly true that without any knowledge of those two complementary and competing modes of representation in ancient religious culture (the iconic versus the aniconic), it would be hard to make much sense of the story. But Kindt goes on to suggest that the real essence of the story is a lesson in the rules of visuality, as Parmeniscus comes to appreciate “the complexities of divine representation”—and demonstrates his appreciation in the changing quality of his laughter, which “becomes more self-reflective.”87

I rather doubt it. So far as I can see, those “complexities” are no more than the context and peg for Parmeniscus’ most important lesson: namely, how to interpret the words of the oracle correctly. And there is no hint in the story of any change of quality in the laughter: Parmeniscus “unexpectedly laughed.”88 The important issue is much simpler than Kindt implies: Why did Parmeniscus laugh?

Partly, the laughter follows from the defeat of expectations and the incongruity of the statue. In fact the word paradoxōs (unexpectedly) probably suggests this: it was not simply that Parmeniscus laughed when he did not expect to; he also laughed at the unexpected. But there is an underlying issue of imitation here too. In Athenaeus’ account, what finally dispelled Parmeniscus’ inability to laugh was the sight of a statue that was, in his view, a very poor imitation of what it was pretending to be. This is, in other words, another example of how mimesis and, more specifically, the boundaries of successful imitation were linked to the production of laughter. At the same time, it is another clear case of the double-sidedness of laughter and the laughable in the Roman world. For the logic of the story is that this block of wood could seem ridiculous (in our sense) as an image of Leto, but it simultaneously embodied the power to make someone laugh (and in this case, that was the power of the goddess and not ridiculous at all).

Parmeniscus was an unwilling agelast, but others—throughout Greek and Roman culture—were much more active refuseniks in matters of laughter.89 The most notorious nonlaugher in the Roman world was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who lived in the late second century BCE and was the grandfather of the more famous Crassus who died fighting the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE. According to Cicero, the satirist Lucilius, who was Crassus senior’s contemporary, first nicknamed him Agelastos (in Greek), and writers from Cicero to Saint Jerome regularly take him as one extreme case of a Roman who hated laughter. As Pliny the Elder summed it up, “People say that Crassus, the grandfather of the Crassus killed in Parthia, never laughed, and for that reason was called Agelastus.”90

But Pliny was overstating the case. For the point that most Roman writers stress is that Crassus had indeed laughed—just once in his life (“But that one exception did not prevent him being called agelastos,” as Cicero insists). What was it that caused Crassus to crack up on that one occasion? The only explanation we have comes from Jerome, again referring back to Lucilius. It was the saying “Thistles are like lettuce to the lips of a donkey”—or perhaps, we should imagine, it was the sight of a donkey eating thistles and the (presumably) common proverb that such a sight evoked.91For the story of Crassus is very close to a couple of others that writers in the Roman Empire told of notable characters catching sight of a donkey consuming something unexpected—and dying of the laughter this produced.

Death by laughter is a vivid image (and a common cliché) in many cultures, from the casual hyperbole of the phrase “They just died of laughter” (an idiom that we saw with the blustering soldier of Terence’s Eunuch, pp. 10, 14) to the curious stories of people reputed to have literally passed away laughing. We could add to Zeuxis many modern examples, from the novelist Anthony Trollope, who is said to have fallen into a coma after laughing uncontrollably at a reading of a comic novel, to the bricklayer from Kings Lynn who died in 1975 after thirty minutes of hysterics at a television comedy show, The Goodies.92 Two particular ancient characters—the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus and the Greek comic poet Philemon (both of the third century BCE)—provide a striking match for Crassus. For they were said to have died laughing when they saw a donkey eating figs and drinking wine.

Valerius Maximus, in a section on notable deaths in his anthology Memorable Deeds and Sayings, has this to say of the death of Philemon: “Philemon was carried off by the force of excessive laughter. Some figs had been prepared for him and placed in his sight. When a donkey started eating them, he called to his slave to chase the animal off. But the slave didn’t arrive till they were all eaten. ‘Since you’ve been so slow,’ he said, ‘you might as well now give the donkey some wine [merum, unmixed wine].’ And he followed up this witty quip with such a bout of breathless cackling [cachinnorum] that he crushed his feeble old windpipe with the all the rough panting.”93 Much the same was told by Diogenes Laertius about the death of Chrysippus (including the detail about the unmixed wine).94

There are all kinds of puzzles and intriguing details in these stories. For a start, “what happened when the donkey ate the figs” looks exactly like one of those free-floating anecdotes that get attached to any number of people, and (as we shall soon see) there are hints that the donkey story, even without its fatal consequences, was part of a wider popular joking tradition. But it may be significant that the same town, Soli in Cilicia, was supposed to be the original home of both Philemon and Chrysippus. Is this, perhaps, a story that had a specific association with that particular place or that gets shifted between different native sons? If so, what would the implications be? The details of the narrative raise curious questions too. Why figs? Is the fact that the Greek word sukon/suka(fig/s) was occasionally used for genitalia part of what makes the story so laughable?95 And why the stress on unmixed wine? In the ancient world, to drink wine that was not mixed with water was usually the mark of the uncivilized or the bestial. Diogenes Laertius’ account of Chrysippus also includes an alternative version of his cause of death: drinking unmixed wine. So should we see a connection between that and what was fed to the donkey?96

Many loose ends remain. Yet it is clear that there is a common theme running through these stories of the fatal power of laughter and the story of Crassus’ single laugh (sharply brought into focus in Tertullian’s passing reference to Crassus—where the violence of his unprecedented laugh actually killed the agelast97). The prompt for each of these peculiarly powerful forms of laughter is the blurring of the (alimentary) boundaries between the human being and the donkey: the quip that made Crassus laugh reformulated donkey diet in human terms; the cue to laughter that finished off Chrysippus and Philemon was a donkey literally crossing the boundary between animal and human diet. As with the monkeys, that edgy dividing line between beast and man was one on which laughter particularly flourished.98

That boundary is of course precisely what is at issue in Apuleius’ second-century CE novel Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass), which tells the story of the transformation of a man into a donkey—and in which Risus (Laughter) reaches the status of a god. It is to a couple of the specifically gelastic aspects of that novel that we now turn, in this chapter’s final section, starting with one episode that acts out in a more complicated way that scene of the donkey stealing human food.


The main lines of Apuleius’ plot are well known.99 The story is told through the mouth of Lucius, a well-born young man of Greek origin, who in the third of the novel’s eleven books is turned into a donkey (or ass).100 This was a mistaken transformation, needless to say. Lucius was trying out the magic potions of the mistress of the house in which he was a guest, with the help of her slave girl. His idea was to experiment with the ointment that would turn him into a bird—but the girl mixed up the jars, and he ended up as a donkey. Most of the novel is the story of Lucius’ adventures as an animal, or rather as a human being trapped in an animal’s body—an apt symbol of the (ludicrous) transgression of the dividing line between man and beast. In the last book, he is returned to human form under the auspices of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and the story ends with him being enrolled as an official of her consort Osiris by the god himself.101

Almost certainly this plot was not wholly the creation of Apuleius. Another, much shorter and simpler version is preserved with the works of Lucian, under the title Lucius, or The Ass, but the precise relationship—chronological and otherwise—between it and Apuleius’ novel is not known.102Nor is it certain how either of them related to another work, now lost but described by the Byzantine patriarch Photios in the ninth century as “Lucius of Patrai’s several books of Metamorphoses.”103 But whatever the exact relationship between these texts, and whatever the innovations of Apuleius may have been,104 there is one vivid incident found in both surviving versions of the story that is a strikingly close parallel for the tale of the donkey, the sight of whose eating and drinking is supposed to have killed off Chrysippus and Philemon.105

To follow Apuleius’ account (overall very similar to the shorter version), near the end of his adventures as an animal, Lucius the donkey came into the possession of two brothers, both slaves: one a confectioner, one a cook. Every evening they used to bring home the rich leftovers from their work and spread them out on their table for supper before going off to the baths to freshen up. And every evening, while they were away, the donkey would nip in to gobble up some of the delicacies, “for I was not so stupid or such a real ass that I would leave that delicious spread and dine on the horribly rough hay.”106 Eventually, as the donkey ate more and more of the best goodies, the brothers noticed the disappearances and suspected each other of stealing the food (in fact, one—presciently, in a way—accused the other of an “inhuman” crime107). But soon enough they noticed that the donkey was getting fatter, though it was apparently not eating its hay. Suspicions aroused, they spied on him one evening and broke down in laughter when they saw what was going on—so loudly that their boss heard, came to take a peek, and split his sides too. In fact, he was so delighted with what he had seen that he invited the donkey to a proper dinner, with human food and drink and everyone reclining on couches in the standard human way. Here the animal played the part of the joking parasite—and was even referred to by the master as “my parasite.”108 The guests were consumed with laughter.

Like almost every story in Apuleius, this is much more complicated than it might at first sight appear. At this point in the narrative, the donkey is very close to his final retransformation back into his human form, and his human dietary indulgence here, as well as his role as parasitus, or even “friend” (contubernalis, sodalis), is partly to be read as moving toward that.109 This is also a sophisticated literary parody. As Régine May has shown, the pair of food workers in this story are carefully modeled on cooks as they appear in Plautus’ comedies, and they serve up decidedly Roman-style food. But whereas cooks in Plautus are characteristically those who pinch the nibbles, this pair is resolutely honest—and it is their donkey who is doing the thieving.110

But my interest is in the links with the other donkey stories. It is obvious that the basic point of this extended gag is very similar to that of those other anecdotes: the ass that usurps food intended for human beings causes outrageous laughter. True, no one dies in the stories of the donkey and the food workers, but both versions stress the violence of the laughter provoked by the sight of the animal consuming the men’s food (the master in Apuleius, for example, laughed “till his belly hurt,” adusque intestinorum dolorem; the Greek account likewise refers repeatedly to the power of the laughter evoked111). There is, however, a clear hint that the account of Apuleius is even more closely related to the point and the plot of those anecdotes of death by laughter. He knew some of those particular stories, or he was familiar with the popular joking theme of the “dining donkey,” of which they are the surviving traces—and he was directly exploiting it.112

Broadly similar as they are, there is in fact one significant difference in detail between the two surviving versions of this episode in Lucius’ story.113 In the shorter one, when the donkey is finally in company at the proper dinner table, someone suggests that he have a glass of wine—diluted (“‘This ass will drink some wine too, if someone will dilute it and give it to him.’ The master gave those orders, and I drank what was brought”).114 In Apuleius, by contrast, we find exactly the same insistence on unmixed wine as in the stories of Chrysippus and Philemon. One of the guests at the donkey’s dinner party (a scurrula, a joker) says, “Give our friend here a drop of unmixed wine [merum].” The master agrees. “Supporting the suggestion, he said, ‘That’s not a stupid joke, you rascal, for likely as not this friend of ours is really keen on a glass of mulsum too.’” Mulsum was another form of unwatered wine, mixed only with honey—and that is what “our friend” the donkey was given.115

The implication of this stress on undiluted wine remains puzzling, but it is a marked link between The Metamorphoses and those other stories of uncontrollable or deathly laughter. In a characteristically clever literary or cultural parody, Apuleius is complicating the simplest form of the anecdote of the donkey diet—by speaking through the “voice” of the animal but also by prizing apart the different viewpoints on the story and on the laughter so often prompted by the confusion between human and beast. The characters in this novel laugh at the donkey eating like a human being; the readers laugh because they know that the donkey is actually human anyway. Laughter can be shared even when we are laughing “at” different things; there is a tricky relationship, Apuleius reminds us, between laughter within and outside the text.

That is only one brief episode in Apuleius’ sometimes frustrating and delightfully complicated novel, which has attracted an enormous amount of recent critical attention. Some of this attention stems from the influence of Jack Winkler’s classic study of the novel,Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass,” which appeared in 1985. Winkler brilliantly focused on the narratological complexities of the text and on the hermeneutic games it revels in playing with the reader and with the slippery voice of the narrator. As his title (which has become something of a mantra in the field of classics) signals, there is a shifting and uncertain relationship between the role of the narrator as author (auctor) and the role of the narrator as character in the book (actor). It is sometimes rather too easy to forget that Winkler was not the first critic to stress the sophistication of Apuleius’ text (against those who deemed it appallingly messy and inconsistent).116 But Auctor & Actor did kick-start a new wave of Apuleian scholarship, which celebrated the cleverness and intricacies of the novel and its artful engagement with earlier literature.

This sophistication extends to the use of laughter within the text. In the short version of the story ascribed to Lucian, laughter appears as a simple diagnostic consistent with the standard ancient position that only humans could laugh. That is to say, Lucius laughs before his transformation from human shape but never as an ass. As soon as he has been turned into an ass, in fact, the narrator remarks that his laugh has turned into a bray (onkēthmos).117 In Apuleius’ novel, laughter (largely by others, at the donkey) is woven throughout the plot, and the question of who is laughing at whom—and why—is one part of the hermeneutic riddling of the text. I want to conclude this chapter by looking harder at the most striking role for laughter in the structure of the novel, the festival of the god Risus (Laughter), in which Lucius is a reluctant participant immediately before his accidental transformation into an animal. This is the original context for the words auctor et actor, and in that context we find a rather different sense for the now famous phrase.118

The basic plot of the episode is again fairly simple, though this time it is found in Apuleius alone. It starts one night early in the novel, when Lucius, still in his human form, is at a drunken dinner with relatives in the town where he is staying (Hypata in Thessaly). They happen to mention that on the next day they will be celebrating one of their annual festivals, sollemnis dies.119 It is a nice pun on the Latin sollemnis (both “regular established ritual” and “solemn” in our sense). For the god to be honored is Laughter, who will be propitiated with an appropriately “merry and jolly ritual.”

That festival, however, almost instantly seems to be forgotten, as the story takes a different turn. For things start to go very wrong after dinner, when Lucius gets back to the house where he is staying—only to discover three men trying to break in. He ends up killing the lot. In the morning he is arrested for murder and taken to the forum to be tried. The puzzling thing is that every one of the spectators is laughing120—and there are so many of them that the case has to be transferred to the theater. There Lucius makes a speech in his defense, fearing the worst, until finally the magistrates insist that he uncover the corpses of the three men he has killed, to take stock of his crime. When he eventually does so, he discovers that they are not corpses at all but three wineskins that he gashed to pieces in his drunken state, thinking they were robbers.121 Laughter breaks out even more, and so fiercely that some of the audience, doubled up, have to “press on their stomachs to ease the pain.”

Lucius is perplexed and upset, and it does not assuage him very much then to be told by the magistrates that this is the festival of Laughter—which always blossoms with some new ingenuity. In this case, that ingenuity had been the joke on Lucius and his mock trial. In order to escape further laughter (“which I myself had created”122), he goes off to the baths before meeting up with the slave girl—who within a few pages will have accidentally contrived his metamorphosis into a donkey.

It is a memorable episode, and it so caught the imagination of Federico Fellini that he transposed a version of it into his film adaptation of Petronius’ Satyricon. It has also caught the imagination of generations of classicists, who have tried to explain what this strange festival is all about and what it is doing in Apuleius’ plot. There have been a number of overoptimistic attempts to suggest that it has definite links to real religious rituals and a real god of laughter (for which there is no reliable evidence at all) or, rather more plausibly, to link the proceedings evoked here to more general structures of ancient religious thought and practice (notably the scapegoat ritual—with Lucius playing the part of the scapegoat123). Others have seen it in more specifically textual terms, as a meta-literary device pointing to the comic genre of the novel as a whole, and recently it has been argued that the episode is based on a Roman mime.124

This (literary) festival of Risus has, however, even more important implications for our understanding of how ancient laughter works, both inside and outside this novel. Several critics have pointed to the parallels (or reversals) between this gelastic episode, which immediately precedes Lucius’ transformation into a donkey, and the gelastic episode we have just examined, with the cooks and their master, which immediately precedes his return to human form. In both instances, Lucius is the object of laughter, but whereas at the festival of Risus he is ashamed and humiliated, at the dinner he feels increasingly pleased by the laughter that greets him.125 Apuleius is surely exploiting the role of laughter in marking that fragile boundary between man and beast.

Beyond this, the episode also points to the ambiguities of laughter more generally. That is partly a question of terminology (for the reader, one of the jokes of the festival of Risus is the foregrounding of cachinnare as much as ridere126) and partly the old conundrum of how we explain laughter’s causes (the narrative of the ritual proceedings is built around Lucius’ puzzlement at what the laughter is all about). But it is the slogan auctor et actor—which Winkler used to highlight the edgy relationship in the novel between Lucius as narrator and Lucius as character in the plot—that offers the sharpest reflection on laughter (sharper even than Winkler acknowledged). For here we find a particularly memorable summing-up of that recurrent theme in ancient reflections of laughter: the ambivalence between laughter’s producer and laughter’s butt.

The phrase is used by the magistrates of Hypata when they reassure Lucius that his whole ordeal has been part of the festival of Risus. After they have explained their annual celebration of divine Laughter, they insist that Lucius is now under the god’s protection: “That god will accompany the man who is auctorem et actorem suum, lovingly and with his blessing, everywhere he goes, and he will never let you feel grief in your heart, and he will constantly brighten your expression with serene pleasure.”127

What do these magistrates mean by “the god accompanying his [suum, that is ‘his own’] auctorem et actorem”? They are certainly not referring to Winkler’s idea of the tricky relationship between narrator and character or between “the authorization of a text’s meaning and the credibility of ego-narrative.”128 However insightful his reading is—and, of course, this optimistic prophecy uttered just before Lucius is miserably transformed into an ass is just one example of what he had in mind—the magistrates’ words in their original context mean something quite different. Alexander Kirichenko, in arguing for the link between this episode and mime, has focused particularly on the word actorem. That, for him, is precisely what Lucius was in this scene: a mime actor.129 But we should not overlook the explicit link (underlined by suum) to Laughter itself, divine or not: Lucius is being cast as the producer and agent of Laughter. In other words, through the voice of the magistrates, explaining to this man-about-to-be-ass the nature of this pseudogod, we find again a lesson about the dual aspect of laughter and the close connection between its active producer (auctor) and its vehicle, agent, or, as we would say, butt (actor).130

As the words of Lucius himself underline, when he reflects shortly afterward on the laughter “which I myself had created” (quem ipse fabricaveram), there is a fine line between the person who makes you laugh and the one you laugh at. Lucius is both.

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